Sarvannan sat hunched on the front passenger seat. His forehead felt hot in spite of the cool air pouring out without a break from the A/C. His eyes darted about. Every time a bus or car came close, his left foot pressed down, as if to hit the brakes, and his shoulders swerved a tiny centimetre to the side away from the vehicle. He hadn’t bothered to strap on his seat belt after they turned into the OMR from the narrow road that met it from Vandallur zoo.
At ma’am’s request, he had slowed down a bit, unsure of the next move. When she repeated it, he found a wider spot on the side of the road, and obediently parked the car. He got out and held the door open for her. She came out from the back seat and slid behind the wheels with the ease of one who was long used to driving. She brought the seat forward, adjusted the mirror, and released the handbrake, before restarting the car. Sarvannan, in the meantime hopped over to the passenger’s side and hurriedly sat down.
Ma’am placed her left foot on the clutch, and gently moved the gear from neutral to first. Sarvannan was surprised, and somewhat relieved. He hadn’t known. Even sir had never told him. He wondered what car she had been driving before. He’d heard that they drove very big cars in the USA. Some almost as big as Lorries. The Honda Civic they were in now would be considered a very small car in comparison, he reckoned.
The first few kilometres were fine. She was on the slow side, but not slow enough to irritate the other cars and buses. She manoeuvred decently. Not aggressive, but not a pushover either. She hesitated only for a few seconds whenever cars and other vehicles came too close, before regaining her composure.
Ma’am hadn’t wanted to visit the zoo. She had only wanted to go for a long drive. Since Sarvannan had not been driving on most days, he had nodded, his head moving like a bobble-doll, and said, “seri ma’am. Seri ma’am.”
Sunday was his holiday, but whenever there were emergencies, like an airport drop for instance, he had to be present. They always gave him another day off after that; a day of his choice. Taking ma’am out for a long drive was not an emergency. Nor could he expect to take the next day off as ma’am was going to visit a temple. He had been idle for most of the week, so he didn’t want to point out her error.
They cruised along pleasantly for about twenty minutes, and Sarvannan began to let his shoulders sink into the back rest. It was too good to last. Now the sweat erupted all over his temples and armpits like a rash.
At first he’d taken it to be a bottle neck, thanks to a stupid driver trying to overtake from the wrong side or a biker taking a wrong turn. Unusual on a Sunday or any other holiday afternoon. Then, he noticed how all the cars and buses were moving in an arc at a particular point. Nobody seemed to be in a hurry. Nobody was honking impatiently. And there was a crowd on the foot path near the arc. Sarvannan immediately understood what had happened. He stole a quick look. Ma’am was looking at the scene in puzzlement.
Afterwards, he wished she had kept her eyes on the road directly ahead, and had stayed behind the bus’s wide rear side with the median to her right. Anything that would have shielded her from the messed up thing lying spread-eagled on the road.
Ma’am shuddered. She shut her eyes for a few terrifying seconds. She opened them and shuddered again and again. Her mouth kept morphing into odd shapes. The whites of her eyes were more visible than he cared to see. She kept on driving though. And initially Sarvannan thought everything would soon be alright. That comforting thought evaporated a few minutes later.
Now hopelessness wrapped itself around him with the weight of a thick woollen shawl. He was sure that no matter what he did, his fate was locked in the palms of ma’am’s hands – her delicate white hands that were fluttering so madly all over the steering wheel. Why had he agreed to it? It was his job to ensure they were safe, especially on a big road like this. He was a careful driver, and always took the abuses and side-cutting tricks of the bikes and smaller cars, the bullying of the buses and water and garbage trucks in his stride with a calmness that belied his age. All his previous bosses had appreciated this quality in him. Ma’am and sir were no exception.
Sarvannan’s throat felt dry. But he did not drink from the bottle of filtered water she thoughtfully provided for him whenever he drove her. The bottle was beaded with frosty droplets. She must have taken it out from the fridge just before they left. It looked very inviting. He put out a timid hand and decreased the A/C’s temperature by one degree. Ma’am didn’t notice. Her agitated fingers had accidentally set off the wipers, which had now begun a mad dance on the windshield. She tried to stop it, but her fingers kept activating the wrong knobs. Her left hand, which had hitherto been steady on the gears, was now assisting her right with the steering, clutching the wheel in a panicky grip as a matter of fact. And she had kept the car running in third gear even though she was driving at a speed more conducive to fourth. The car zigzagged imperceptibly. All the more dangerous, thought Sarvannan. His face turned grey as his eyes began to see danger everywhere. But ma’am noticed nothing.
“Ma’am, I take the wheel. Just stop car on side ma’am,” he ventured at last, in halting English. “Left side.”
“No. No,” she said, waving a frantic hand. The car careened a few centimetres to the right. An autorickshaw driver glared at them, but his expression changed to one of alarm when he saw the lady at the wheels. “Sarvannan, I have to do this. I must. I cannot become weak now you know.”
“Yes. Seri ma’am. But you okay, no? Ma’am? Please?”
Sandhya shuddered again. Her eyes crinkled up pushing her eyebrows together into pleats. She touched the locket hanging from a gold chain at her throat. Sarvannan thought she was about to kiss her fingers. But she rubbed the tips together and mumbled something under her breath instead. Maybe a prayer.
The car reached the overhead bridge after the toll gate at Navallur. It was almost three pm, and what little traffic there was on the OMR had begun to speed up again. The day was scorching outside even though there still were a couple of months left before summer officially set in. Sarvannan leaned forward, slanting a little to his right so he could see the rear view mirror better. His eyes were intent upon the traffic, taking it all in. Before them, beside them and behind them.
“No problem for me ma’am,” he tried again. “You are ok driver ma’am. Now disturbed. So I take wheel. Please Ma’am?”
“Thank you Sarvannan,” she sounded like she would start to weep any moment. “He was so young. My Rachit, my paiya’s age, no?”
“Yes ma’am. But no helmet ma’am. Rachit-thambi careful ma’am. Last holiday I sitting next to him. He driving sir car. Very steady hand ma’am, Rachit-thambi has. No problem with Rachit-thambi ma’am. ”
“I know. I know,” she sobbed. “Oh my God. It’s so horrible. Did you see? His head! Oh God! Oh God!” She shuddered again. The car did a slight dance on the road. The drivers behind them honked and screamed maniacally.
“Sunday traffic moving fast, no ma’am? No helmet means rhomba bad danger.”
“Sarvannan, neither of us are wearing our seatbelts.” A small hysterical laugh escaped her throat.
“Yellow light ma’am. Slow ma’am. Little slow. Kuncham slow.” Sarvannan leaned forward some more. The light changed. “Stop now ma’am. Light red.”
Sandhya pressed the brake. The car jerked to a halt. Sarvannan winced. He crept his right hand closer to the hand brake. She kept her left foot pressed hard on the clutch as she brought the gear to neutral, resting her hand there until the light went green. She managed to ease the car forward, and move from first to second gear and then less than a minute later to third. Sarvannan exhaled, but almost immediately ended up swallowing his second breath. She had reached the 40 km speed without shifting to fourth gear.
“Ma’am please fourth gear. Next fifth. More fuel save, ma’am.”
Sandhya swerved to the left to avoid a slow scooter, and then just as quickly to the right to steady the car. Vehicles behind her raised a cacophony. The lady on the scooter didn’t notice, but her pillion rider did. He raised his hand at her as if to say, “what the hell?!” Sarvannan shrank back into his seat.
“His brain was out Sarvannan!” Now her eyes filled with tears. She tried to blink them away. “Young boy. Why do they do this?!”
“Young boys most careless ma’am. Only want to be hero. Rachit-thambi not like local boys. Very calm. No problem with Rachit-thambi,” he turned towards Sandhya. “Ma’am, I no problem ma’am. Give me wheel. You rest.”
“Thank you Sarvannan. Thank you. But I have to do this. I cannot always sit in the passenger seat. I used to drive you know. My license is very old.”
“I know ma’am, but US road more smooth driving. Nalla traffic rules. Nalla cars and drivers. All good, good. In India all cars, cycles, autos, truck, people all the time coming, going, coming, going. No seeing, crossing road. All zigzag zigzag. Bad, bad. All big mess ma’am. Rhomba talavelli.”
Sandhya giggled, still a little hysterical. “Talavelli,” she said. “Headache Sarvannan?”
He glanced at her. She looked so soft and frail. Like a plump white fantail pigeon, somebody’s precious pet bird that had lost its way. He wanted to put an arm around her; stroke her white hair. He knew how hard she was trying to get used to Chennai; the weather, the traffic, the food. He was not sure she had made any progress. It had taken her almost six months to summon up enough courage to get on to the thoroughfare. Though these days she seemed to be more at ease with the crowded roads.
They, ma’am and sir, were nicer than most of his earlier bosses. And he’d had a variety, including Korean, Japanese and white people, in his twelve-year long career as a company driver. Even though they were North Indians, both of them were very polite; civilised he would say. Their two children, Rachit-thambi doing his masters after his engineering degree in the US somewhere and Priyanka-papa studying at a college in London, were also very polite and friendly. He had met them a couple of times before. Above all, the whole family was respectful. When they gave him something, food, clothes, old books or stationery, apart from the Diwali and New Year gifts, they presented the things to him so nicely, as if it were he who was doing them a favour by accepting them.
Once he’d come up for the car keys and found ma’am ironing a shirt, which to his surprise she brought over, and asked him if he would mind taking it. It had once belonged to sir, but now he was too fat to wear it and the shirt was so good, she had explained. Sarvannan had seen straightaway that the shirt was practically new and of foreign make. She had put it in a clean plastic bag and handed it to him. He had smiled and thanked her, muttering, “nannri. Nannri ma’am.” Another time, ma’am had knitted a pale pink woollen dress for his new born daughter. She often asked after his wife and mother.
For the past one and a half months ma’am was alone at home. Sir had gone to the US again. Sarvannan wondered how she spent her time. She went to the Durga temple on ECR link road on certain days. She went to the local Nilgiri stores and the fruit and vegetable shops. She liked to see the sun rise on the beach, but usually went during sunset, perhaps out of consideration for Sarvannan. Sometimes, though this was rare, she went to one of the malls. Ma’am didn’t seem to have found many friends. She was on friendly terms with her neighbours. But no coming and going. A couple of times a year their relatives and friends visited. But not for long, ten days maximum.
Sarvannan watched her as she drove. The apples of her cheek were slightly flushed. A row of sweat beads lined her upper lip, which had lost its lipstick. Her wavy white hair was tied into a low ponytail. Other ma’ams dyed their hair. He was certain that if she did the same she would look much younger. Certainly younger than her neighbours.
“Ma’am take left into service lane,” he said gently, even as his body tensed.
Sandhya slowed and swerved to the left. She slowed down some more as they entered the uneven and pothole riddled side lane.
“No mother carries her child for nine months only to see him lying like that on the road!” she cried out suddenly. “Sarvannan how many brothers and sisters do you have?”
“One sister. Married ma’am. Younger brother still studying. I eldest born. After father death, head of family.”
“I know. You are a good boy Sarvannan. Did you give the Shri Balaji calendar to your mother?”
“Yes, giving ma’am.”
“Sister has children?”
“Yes ma’am. Two girls. Now maybe one boy coming.”
“What?! What is it with you people about boys? Boy! Boy! Boy! See that boy on the road? Boys are hard to raise. Don’t you know? Tell your brother-in-law not to harass your sister.”
“Seri ma’am. All boy not bad ma’am. Rachit-Thambi good. I also. Doing my duty to family.”
“Yes, yes, I know. Sarvannan. But to lose a boy on the road? Like that? No reason. What was the reason? Why? Did you see how his brain…” Sandhya choked. The tears ran unchecked.
“Ma’am,” said Sarvannan softly. “Take left turn now. Our lane coming.”
A dog ran across the lane. Sandhya braked violently. They both lurched forward. Sarvannan steadied himself on the glove compartment. She pressed the accelerator. The car almost jumped forward. Sarvannan held the seat beneath his thighs. Two pedestrians hopped out of the way. They glared and yelled after them.
The December floods had wreaked havoc, but the road had yet to be re-laid. The municipality workers had come, levelled the road, strewn it with granulated flint and run a road roller over the stretch, and left it at that. No tar or concrete yet. The road looked white and powdery. The ride was bumpy and dusty.
“Ma’am putting third gear? Please come down to second.”
“It’s in second, see.”
He looked down and saw that it was indeed. She turned the car carefully into the driveway and into her parking lot. She stopped the car and pulled up the hand brake. She turned off the ignition. Sarvannan got into the driver’s seat as soon as she got out, and parked the car straight. When he got out again she insisted he drink some water.
“Thank you ma’am,” said Sarvannan.
When she was handing the bottle to him, he thought she looked like she would collapse right there. The thought came to him that he would have to hold her to stop her from falling. It was an awkward thought. Ma’am was not exactly light. Sandhya steadied herself, and took a few long breaths. He watched her almost totter towards the lift. Her face growing pale then flushed, and then pale again.
Sarvannan drank deeply from the bottle before starting his scooter, parked at a distance from the residents’ parking lot. He tucked the bottle into a cloth bag he kept slung from one of the scooter’s handlebars. It would come in handy at home. He wore his helmet without feeling irritated about it for the first time, in spite of the heat. Ma’am and sir had scolded him many times before for riding without a helmet, so he always brought it along, making a show of wearing it when they were around.
He stopped at the corner shop where he had to take a turn before he could get into his own lane, around fifteen kilometres away from his employer’s gated community. The shopkeeper kept chickens and potatoes along with other provisions. Sarvannan bought half a kilo weight of chicken pieces, cut up small. The man handed him the plastic bag, he paid and placed the chicken into the cloth bag. He would tell, Easwari, his wife, to make chicken curry for dinner. A surprise feast.
Later that night, after he had finished his meal, he heard his mother calling out to him from her bed. She asked if he had eaten well. Like other days he said yes he had. But today, unlike other days, he walked over to her and sat down on his haunches. He stroked her white-hair strewn forehead, and chatted with her at length. He told her how he had taken Sandhya ma’am for a long drive and how she had also driven a little, just a little. He didn’t mention the dead boy. He spoke about Ratchit-thambi and Priya-papa. And finally he told her that he had enjoyed his dinner very much, and that now she should eat hers too before the good chicken curry her daughter-in-law had made turned cold.